– by Stephanie Fernandez
On the 10th of May, 2018, Mahathir Mohamad became the 7th Malaysian Prime Minister, after his political party – Pakatan Harapan – seized a landslide victory during the election. This isn’t Mahathir’s first time as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, but it is the first time that the election of a Malaysian Prime Minister has inspired such hope and unity amongst Malaysians.
Born in Kedah, a northern Malaysian state, in 1925, Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest Prime Minister that Malaysia has ever had – and the oldest Prime Minister in the world. Born into a lower-middle income family with no political or social connections, his success – first as a doctor, and then as a political candidate – is impressive, especially since many Malaysian politicians are assigned posts based on virtue of their connections.
Mahathir Mohamad was originally elected as Prime Minister on the 16th of July, 1981, after successfully serving many roles – as the deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Education, serving under the United Malays National Organization (or UMNO, as it’s more commonly known). As Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad began to implement a number of rules and regulations, some of which are still in place to this day and age, and many of which have drawn criticism from Malaysians from all walks of life.
As Prime Minister, due to his pro-Malay stance, Mahathir Mohamad chose to continue the New Economic Policy, which had been put in place in 1971. The New Economic Policy was a form of affirmative action, made to benefit ethnic Malays and indigenous Malaysians – the Bumiputeras – through redistribution of wealth and the economy. Some aspects of the New Economic Policy were educational quotas to national universities, cheaper housing, better interest rates, and in some cases, shares of certain companies – all benefiting the Bumiputeras that Mahathir Mohamad was so fond of.
Supposedly, this was to ensure that the Bumiputeras would be taken care of, in most aspects of their lives. Mahathir Mohamad even claimed that it would work positively towards unifying Malaysians, since he assumed that the Bumiputeras needed this advantage. However, it did little for the unification of Malaysians, once many ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians realized that the implementation of the New Economic Policy was to their detriment.
It might be surprising that a man who held on to pro-Bumiputera policies so strongly throughout his time as Prime Minister would be able to inspire such hope among Malaysians, across the board, in 2018. It all began in2015, when the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal came to light. The Malaysian public grew restless after receiving confirmation of what they already knew – that the Prime Minister, and his entire system, was unspeakably corrupt.
Many were dissatisfied with the behaviour and practices of Najib Razak, the Malaysian Prime Minister at the time. Despite protests from citizens, proof of his misdeeds, and very public accusations, Najib Razak refused to step down, imprisoning and getting rid of anyone who attempted to stand up to him. After Malaysia’s 13th General Election, Malaysian citizens began to realize that change was not going to come easily, and when Mahathir Mohamad openly started to critique Najib Razak, the public was ready to listen.
Having left UMNO, Mahathir Mohamad’s political party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, joined the main Malaysian opposition party, Pakatan Harapan, in 2016. Once the 14th General Election was announced in 2018, it was on – UMNO was campaigning hard with a combination of funds, connections, and underhanded tactics to make sure that they stayed on top. Despite this, Mahathir Mohamad, who knew that he had played a part in Malaysia’s downfall, used this to his advantage.
He had made a complete change; he was sorry for what he had done – and it showed. During the campaign, he spoke about what he could do, how he wanted to improve the country. The Malaysian public ate it up, knowing that despite what he had done in the past, Mahathir Mohamad was the only person who could possibly put Najib Razak behind bars. They came out in droves to support him.
Meanwhile, Najib Razak and his cronies campaigned hard – attempting to buy votes, changing the voter registry to benefit UMNO, gerrymandering, giving citizenships to migrants in attempt to gain political footing. However, Mahathir Mohamad had spoken – he had told the people what he could do, and the people wanted to see this happen. On the 10th of May, 2018, Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as the Malaysian Prime Minister – all over again, but under very different circumstances.
The public rejoiced – not just because the 10th of May was declared a public holiday, but because they had lived to see Pakatan Harapan gain control of the Malaysian political system from UMNO, for the first time since Malaysian independence.
Four months on, and Mahathir Mohamad has lived up to a good few of his promises. Najib Razak is under investigation – and has been arrested and charged. Much of the Pakatan Harapan cabinet is made up of women; capable women who have earned their positions, not women who have been allowed to participate because of their connections and societal standing. For the first time, the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister is a woman.
However, there are many things that still need to be taken care of – the rise of child marriage in Malaysia, and the silence from Pakatan Harapan, is telling. The fearmongering towards the LGBT community continues, with Mahathir Mohamad deciding that there is a divide between Asian and Western values, as if human rights aren’t universal, as if he is stuck in a time where discrimination is a completely acceptable thing, where little girls should be married before they even reach puberty.
If anything at all, this should be a lesson to everyone – we might get older, and we might live to accomplish amazing feats in our lifetime, but we should never, ever stop learning and growing as individuals.